BRIAN: Concert Overture: "For Valour" (1902-06).* Comedy
Overture: "Dr. Merryheart" (1911-12). Symphony No. 11 (1954).
Symphony No. 15 (1960).*
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe*, Adrian Leaper.
Naxos 8.572014 TT: 77:10.
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Giant. British composer Havergal Brian left a significant body of work, including
a cycle of 32 symphonies, which hardly anyone but specialists knows. During
his very long life (nearly 97 years), he gained the support of such figures
as Elgar, Delius, Bantock, Vaughan Williams, Ernest Newman, and Robert Simpson,
the last of whom helped illuminate him briefly on the general listener's radar
screen. Certainly, Simpson turned me on to Brian during the Sixties and Seventies
through articles, liner notes, and getting up actual performances on BBC Radio.
Yet, if we consider the quality of Brian's music, we can't say he's yet gotten
his due. Here, after all, is Elgar's heir, among other things. Bad luck plagued
him most of his life. Born in grinding poverty, his formal schooling stopped
at the age of 12. Yet he stubbornly held to the idea of becoming a composer.
He could not afford a formal course of study, so he to a great extent taught
himself and earned a catch-as-can living in musical journalism and various
musical secretarial tasks. He had married (twice; the first ended in divorce
in 1913) and needed to provide for his family. His work as a reviewer gave
him access to free tickets to the wealth of concerts in London. His positions
in musical journalism kept him abreast of the latest developments. He early
on beat the drum for Mahler, Handel's operas, Bruckner, and Schoenberg. Promised
performances and publications of major works often went unrealized, due to
one thing and another (the usual lost scores and the ascent of the Nazis to
power, for example). By the end of World War II, he was almost totally forgotten.
At the time of his Sixties revival, he and his wife were living in a council
flat. Through all of this, he single-mindedly continued to compose, producing
most of his symphonies after World War II as well as other major scores. His
work rarely shows up in recording, often in amateur performances, although
Marco Polo and now Naxos seem to have taken a flyer on him -- a long time coming.
Brian's work divides roughly into early and late. The early work is big and
Romantic; the late terse and thoroughly modern. This CD features scores from
If Brian has a fault, it's his tendency to stuff his work full of too many
wonderful things. I can't think of a truly light piece. For Valour suffers
from this. It's an Elgarian overture -- similar to something like Froissart or In
the South. Ideas burst from it in confusing profusion. There are, for
example, not one, not two, but three multi-thematic subject groups,
and they're freely mixed in the development. This takes, at least, great skill,
but a listener may have to listen to it many, many times before it begins to
make sense. Fortunately, Naxoshas divided the overture into
subtracks, and Brian maven Malcolm McDonald has provided terrific
liner notes geared to those tracks. Most of the overture is either contemplative
or grand, but it also contains some "barbaric" passages that I find
quite gripping. Dr. Merryheart, on the other hand, takes off from
Richard Strauss, particularly Don Quixote. Despite Brian's designation
of "overture," it, too, is a set of "fantastic" variations.
The theme, however, hasn't as strong a profile as Strauss's. Indeed, Brian
seems to have made it out of bits, and the bits don't particularly cohere.
Furthermore, he varies the individual bits (often, just rising and falling
scales) rather than the theme. Nevertheless, it's wonderful music, overflowing
-- again -- with invention. Nobody has yet found a literary source for Dr.
Merryheart, other than Brian's own program note. Some take it as the composer's
humorous self-portrait -- head full of "crotchets," heroic in dreams,
In three movements played without a break, the Symphony No.11 opens, unconventionally,
with a contrapuntal, contemplative adagio, Brucknerian in mood, without borrowing
Bruckner's idiom. Brian refers to its two main ideas as "motto-themes" --
that is, they engender other themes. The mottoes slightly vary one another
-- an upward octave leap, followed by variants of a short descent. These mottoes
run throughout the symphony. In the adagio, they appear in truncated form,
without their opening jump. The second movement, an allegro which takes up
more than half of the symphony, begins with an idea clearly derived from the
first measures of Mahler's Symphony No.4. It's an odd allegro, in that it's
largely quick in brief spans; contemplation is "always breaking out." As
in a lot of Brian, it combines several different movements within one overarching
argument. Essentially, an allegretto transforms itself into a slow movement.
The first idea consists of the horns blowing a bumptious theme that consists
of the mottos in their full form conjoined. The spirit of Mahler flows through
the movement in more ways than one, particularly in how one idea segues into
the next and in the chamber-like symphonic orchestration. Brian uses a large
orchestra, but seldom all at once. The extra instruments provide a greater
variety and color in less complex textures. Especially noteworthy is Brian's
use of percussion, absolutely individual, almost a composing fingerprint. The
second movement flows into the short coda, a swaggering march which sandwiches
a pastoral dance, and the symphony ends with a strong dash of bright brass.
Structurally, the Symphony No. 15 comes across as an odd duck, even for a
one-movement symphony. Its main idea -- MacDonald calls it "Handelian" -- strikes
me as a first cousin to "Rule Britannia!" That idea acts like pillars
throughout the work, between which one gets discursive episodes. The sections
of the symphony can't really be called movements, since their boundaries are
fluid. I doubt whether two people would agree on where one ends and the next
begins. It's fantasia as much as symphony. Nevertheless, one can distinguish
three main spans: a march, a lyrical bit (the bulk of the work), and a final
triple-time dance based on the march. This last is hardly the light divertissement
one might expect from a Classical work. It sounds like giants dancing, even
waltzing. There's a deep "boom" to it. Throughout the work, Brian's
imaginative, yet non-showoff-y use of percussion counts as one of the many
fascinating details. As discursive as Brian can be, this symphony, because
of the centrality of the opening idea, seems one of his most focused.
Tony Rowe in For Valour and in Symphony No. 15 and Adrian Leaper in
the rest do very well indeed containing Brian's tendency to sprawl in these
scores. The RTÉ band significantly improves over the amateurs and pickup
groups that seemed to appear on most of the early Brian recordings. The sound
is firmly within the current standard, without exceeding it. Naxos is
relatively cheap. Why not take a flutter?
S.G.S. (June 2011)